Billy Budd, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, August 2013Posted on 28 August 2013
This concert version of the Glyndebourne production, using the same singers, conductor, chorus and orchestra, added one glorious extra touch. At the end of the Epilogue, after Captain Vere has recalled his inaction that led to the hanging of Billy Budd in 1797, he walked slowly off the stage, and the only sound in the auditorium was his footfall. Even after he exited through the double doors, there wasn’t a sound until conductor Andrew Davis let his arms fall to his side.
Then came the applause, none more so than for Mark Padmore’s sublime performance of Vere. With perfect diction one needed no libretto, but what he gave the audience went far beyond fine diction and great singing. In the prologue and epilogue to Britten’s two-act version he is an old man, but as a bewigged captain of the Indomitable the sadness of his final soliloquy came over beautifully. “I accept their verdict” had the feeling of “I am impotent”, and “I have seen iniquity overthrown” was a gripping commentary on the justice of Claggart’s death.
If you want to enter into questions of good and evil, of right action against an adherence to well-meaning rules and regulations, this is the opera to see. Alas it is over, both at Glyndebourne and the BBC Proms, but congratulations to the Proms for putting this on just two days after the end of the immensely successful Glyndebourne run.
Vere, of course, is not the only character here. The epitome of evil, in the form of Claggart, Master at Arms, brilliantly portrayed by Brindley Sherratt, was appreciatively booed by the audience. His homo-erotic repression is part of what drives this opera, whose otherwise dull characters are part and parcel of the Royal Navy in their fight against the French, apart of course from the Christ-like Billy, so well portrayed by Jacques Imbrailo.
In the Glyndebourne production, Imbrailo scrappled down two deck levels to join the volunteers willing to board the French ship, but here he merely ran down the stairs stage left, so there are, undoubtedly, advantages to having a full stage production. But if you missed Glyndebourne this was the next best thing, and thanks to the BBC tickets could be purchased for a mere £5.
I have mentioned three singers — there were plenty more. Jeremy White was a superb Dansker, the older man who understands all that is going on, and Peter Gijsbertsen made an outstanding novice. As officers, Stephen Gadd as Mr. Redburn and David Soar as Mr. Flint were both very strong, their voices carrying well across the 5,000 seat audience. My only quibble, utterly minor, is that the crew at the end were unable to threaten the apprentice, who helped set up Billy. At Glyndebourne their body movements made it quite clear how this would end, but one cannot have everything.
As a concert performance this was as good as it gets — brilliantly staged by Ian Rutherford with the performers all in costume. If you missed it I sympathise, and if you were there, then treasure the memory.